Veronica Gonzales, the new vice president for university advancement at the University of Texas-Pan American, became convinced of the need to find other sources of support for higher education when she witnessed the reduction of state funds up close.
Near the end of Ms. Gonzales's eight years representing the Rio Grande Valley, the legislature voted to slash support for Texas Grants, the state's largest need-based-aid program, by 10 percent. Ms. Gonzales fought hard against the cuts, which were felt deeply on the Pan American campus. Seventy percent of students there receive financial aid, though the university's tuition is among the lowest in the country.
"If the government cannot afford to fund higher education, then it's going to be up to the public to make that commitment," said Ms. Gonzales, 48, who started her new job in July.
Poverty runs deep in the Rio Grande Valley, where the average per-capita income is just above $13,000. But Robert S. Nelsen, Pan American's president, is confident that Ms. Gonzales is up to the difficult task of raising money in the region. "People give to people they respect," he said. "She has that respect."
As chief fund raiser, Ms. Gonzales hopes to create a more balanced base of support for the university. Every year for over a decade, the campus has hosted Hispanic Engineering, Science & Technology Week, which has helped it build corporate relationships that have yielded donations, she says.
Corporate giving accounted for more than 40 percent of Pan American's philanthropic revenue in the 2010 fiscal year. But the share of alumni who gave to the university, though rising, was just 3 percent in 2011. "Our heart is the alumni," she said, "and we want to get them engaged."
To that end, Ms. Gonzales has already taken steps to establish new alumni chapters, revamp the alumni magazine, and begin a marketing campaign that showcases successful graduates' work in the community.
And she also hopes to inspire residents of the Rio Grande Valley to donate by emphasizing small gifts and a high level of participation. "We have to show them that without their help, we cannot continue to make this an opportunity for their children," Ms. Gonzales said.
As a first-generation college graduate who received her bachelor's degree from her hometown institution, Southwest Texas State University, before earning a University of Texas law degree, Ms. Gonzales has much in common with Pan American's largely Hispanic students. She worked her way through college, spending 15 to 20 hours a week on the clock while taking a full course-load. Her freshman year, she recalls, she lost herself in her studies, reading her notes, recording them, and then listening to them over and over.
Ms. Gonzales thinks the various career-exposure programs offered by the university are especially important for first-generation college students. She proudly cites the statistic that more than 60 percent of Pan American students who apply to medical school are accepted, compared with the state average of about a third.
"This area of our state has so much potential. We're doing a lot with a little," she said. "These students are like diamonds in the rough."
Ms. Gonzales, who practiced law for 20 years, says politics is good preparation for fund raising—both votes and donations hinge on relationships. As a legislator, she sponsored bills to help community-college students make tuition payments in installments and to allow staff members to enroll in courses at a reduced price, both of which passed.
Ms. Gonzales's parents instilled in her the importance of a college degree. Her mother died when she was 14, but her father is proud of her return to higher education.
"We want to be an example for our nieces and nephews and our own children," Ms. Gonzales said. "We want to be able to say that the start you get in life doesn't determine where you end up."